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A language of our own

No Margins shares Canadian stories in Lesbian

A DISTINCT LITERARY VOICE?: 'When we discover our queer selves, conventional words fall apart,' says No Margins co-editor Catherine Lake. Credit: Xtra West files

With their read-listen-clap format, book launches tend to be subdued affairs. When they’re not, the hubbub is usually the result of a famous name in attendance, or because a controversial author has drawn vocal supporters and opponents.

But there are exceptions. When No Margins co-editor Catherine Lake addressed the sizeable crowd at her anthology’s Vancouver launch, she found herself staring at a lively group of women whose infectious enthusiasm no one could miss. The mood was celebratory, as though the anthology’s very existence were an achievement to applaud.

Lake says her Toronto launch was equally successful.

“The audience was thrilled. We received plenty of comments like, ‘It has been a long time since I’ve been to a lesbian cultural event. Thank you.’

“It felt so good to be among one another to speak about ourselves in a deeper way than what Pride Day allows,” Lake continues. “I felt that at both launches–that we were reconnecting. And in hearing our writers, in hearing our literature, we experienced a wholehearted pride in ourselves and a re-commitment to who we are as a community in Canada.”

No Margins is a multitasking anthology. It brings together fiction from 15 authors–ranging from best selling, Oprah-endorsed Ann-Marie MacDonald, to lesser known authors like Vancouver’s Luanne Armstrong and Calgary’s Marion Douglas–and showcases the diversity of lesbian prose styles in Canada today. Other literary luminaries featured in the book include: Shani Mootoo with her gritty realism, Daphne Marlatt and her heady postmodernism, Emma Donoghue’s urban comedy, and local talents Karen X Tulchinsky, Lydia Kwa and Anne Fleming.

The anthology is “an intentional gathering of those writers we wanted to celebrate, highlight, showcase [and] explore,” Lake explains.

In addition to the authors’ own submissions, Lake also sought their opinions on questions of nation, sexuality and identity. Taken together, these authorial statements, observations, declarations and confidences–made evident in the “Writer Notes” that precede each story selection–present readers with a banquet’s worth of complex food for thought.

Instead of we-are-family, lesbian-is-good consensus, there’s lively debate and dialogue.

“I wish I could say that lesbian writers are shaping Canadian fiction in spite of homophobia,” writes Tulchinsky about the role of lesbian-focused literature, “but I don’t really think there are very many out lesbian writers who are writing about queer experience.”

“I’m more interested in not spelling everything out, challenging readers to complete the narrative with their own projections,” counters Kwa. “Or perhaps, asking readers to rethink their expectations of what lesbian narration is. Is this a stable form with clear boundaries? Not for me.”

The authors also offer distinct perspectives on how living in Canada informs their work.

Says Armstrong, “I am a writer who identifies very strongly with a particular place and much of my writing focuses on this region. I am also interested in the contradictory spaces formed by my multiple identifies as a rural, queer, academic, social activist, mother, and grandmother.

“I am also a product of a politically active, pivotal period in Canadian history,” she adds, “and I am very concerned that the issues, ideas, and visions shared by social justice movements of the last thirty years not be lost in our current social and historical turmoil.”

In contrast, Douglas approaches the question with an autobiographical snippet, telling of living in Protestant small-town Ontario–where “all emotions [are] suppressed right down to the level of the water table”–and needing to examine what impact such a culture has on a queer individual.

Similarly, replies to the editors’ query, “Is there an intersection between being an artist and identifying as lesbian?” are radically different.

Toronto’s Marnie Woodrow, for instance, is succinct to the point of bluntness: “Not that I know of.”

Part of Elizabeth Ruth’s detailed self-examination touches on the same concern from a different perspective. The Torontonian says, “I must write the world as I need it to be. To write anything else would be to write myself out of existence. Does that make me a lesbian writer or just an honest one? How, if at all, does my sexuality intersect with my writing? Do I believe there’s a distinct lesbian literary ‘voice’? My answer is yes. And no. And maybe. You decide.”

No Margins’ subtitle, “Writing Canadian Fiction in Lesbian,” implies not only the existence of a distinct lesbian literary voice, but one with its own language, its own grammar and syntax.

That was a deliberate statement, says Lake.

“Yes, that is my intention–to provoke the concept of a different language. We do speak distinctly. Any honest exploration of life outside our rigid mores necessitates a shift in definitions.

“When we discover our queer selves, conventional words fall apart,” Lake says. “We learn an additional language through community, love, sex, through learning our history and locating our literature. We learn how to speak with inclusion and/or to speak in code. Lesbians have been historically hidden; the queer community has always had its secret handshakes and today, there still remains plenty of rugged subtext.

“For writers who identify as lesbian/queer, I wonder about the outsider status,” she adds. “It shapes our way of seeing–no doubt–and so it must influence our tongues.”

The process of assembling No Margins and its authors was not without its obstacles, Lake notes. “The main challenge was getting the authors to come on board for a smaller press,” she confides. “These authors have their own publishers and over-full schedules. I’d attend readings and other events, then try to jockey up next to the author to talk to them about the project.

“Of course, there are authors who do not want to be associated with their sexual orientation, with identity politics,” she continues. “I did experience rejection. One author was quite severe in her response. It shook my faith in the project for a few days.

“And then I began to wonder: We rarely hear artists saying, ‘Northern writing? I don’t identify with that,’ or ‘You’re collecting writings from Montreal writers–oh well I’m not into city identity,’ or ‘I don’t like to be known as an Irish-Canadian writer so I won’t contribute.”

That point of view is one she disavows. “To love women in a male-dominated society is an act of rebellion and an act of beauty. To love women and to love oneself enough to reject the constraints of gender roles is more than who we fuck. And to struggle for our rights as equal members of the human family gives us a unique perspective and a character that sets us apart from other communities.”

Ultimately, Lake sees No Margins as activism and homage, a gift for readers and writers alike.

“I wanted the anthology to be a gift to our queer communities as a testament to how far we’ve come in strength, voice, visibility, influence. And I wanted the anthology to be a gift to the authors–strange as this might sound from the authors’ perspectives since they had to do work–but a compilation highlighting their work, and applauding their integrity as artists and as persons in spite of homophobic barriers.”